The coolest event in Hollywood this week won’t involve starlets hitting a red carpet — just a mid-level studio executive hitting SEND. On Dec. 11, Universal’s Franklin Leonard will push the button on this year’s edition of the Black List, his annual ranking of the best unproduced screenplays of the year. He’ll e-mail only 260 people, but they in turn will launch a forwarding frenzy. ”Everyone is in each other’s offices, calling each other, and debating the order of the list,” says William Morris agent Cliff Roberts. ”Traffic in the development community stops when it comes out.”
In just four years, the Black List has become Hollywood’s equivalent of the Rookie of the Year award — a neon arrow pointing to the work of undiscovered or unappreciated writers. It has launched careers, been an increasingly important weapon in the battle to get great original screenplays made into great original films, and even become a crystal ball for the Oscars. In 2005, Leonard’s list championed Diablo Cody’s script for Juno and Nancy Oliver’s for Lars and the Real Girl. Last year, both were nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Cody ultimately took home the little golden god, but Oliver certainly had no complaints. ”Lars had been making the rounds for a few years, but it was still an invisible property,” she says. ”The Black List changed all that. It gave permission for other people to like it.” Leonard has never put his name on the Black List, even though the Los Angeles Times outed him as the mastermind two years ago. This year, however, he’s agreed to let EW have an early peek at his top 10 and to talk about the improbable trip that the list has gone on since he launched it in 2005.
Leonard himself is a soft-spoken Georgia native and Harvard grad. He’s uncomfortable, for good reason, with people assuming that he named his project the Black List simply because he’s African-American. The truth is that he had a couple of different inspirations. Yes, he wanted to subvert the cultural metaphor that black equals bad (”I wanted to stick my finger in the eye of that idea”); but he also wanted to take a swipe at the infamous McCarthy-inspired blacklist, which killed the careers of screenwriters suspected of being Communists (”What if there was a blacklist that people wanted to be on?”).
NEXT PAGE: ”It became a thing very quickly. I’d love to say that this was all part of the master plan, but I just wanted to read some good scripts.”